Writing Assignment

Human Biology Writing Assignment 1
How are scientific discoveries communicated in popular media?

In this writing assignment you will compare a recent original scientific research paper to the way in which it is reported in popular media.

Learning objectives:

  • Read and understand the results from a scientific research paper
  • Critically compare the findings reported in a scientific research paper to those reported in popular media regarding the same research Step 1: Watch the Last Week Tonight video about Scientific Studies at: This video is meant primarily for your entertainment, but illustrates how misunderstandings of science (or possibly intentional misinterpretations) presented in popular media can give the illusion that either science can prove any point you want it to, or that scientists lack agreement or understanding of their fields. As you can probably imagine, a news outlet may experience conflict between their desire to faithfully report on a story and their desire to attract readers and thereby attract advertising dollars. Due to this conflict, due to reporters not understanding the research, or simply due to space constraints, some news reports of scientific discoveries may not accurately reflect the actual science. The goal of this assignment is explore how science is presented by one popular media source compared to the original scientific publication. Step 2: Go to www.ScienceDaily.com to find a popular media article. Locate a recent (published within the last 6 months) article dealing with a discovery related to human health (e.g. medicine, nutrition, etc.). You can browse around, especially in the Health section, or search for a topic of your interest. Just be sure that your chosen article addresses some aspect of human biology, such as medicine, behavior, evolution, physiology, etc. Step 3: In addition to this popular media article, you will need to find the original research paper it was based upon. Before you get too far into the topic, be sure you can locate the research paper. You’re looking for something that was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Do not select a popular media article that cites a scientific discovery presented at a meeting or symposium – you will have much greater difficulty finding the original research. Locate the research paper that the popular media article was based on.
    For most of the articles published on ScienceDaily, there is a direct link to the research paper. Alternatively, you can use Google Scholar to locate the original research article. Use the researcher’s name, the journal’s name, and the title of the research paper or a few keywords about the research to help locate the article. Contact your instructor early if you are having trouble finding the research paper.

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Step 4:

Read the two articles.

Start with the popular media article, taking particular note of the scientific claims made and the support offered for those claims. Are there any indications of sample sizes, effect sizes, statistical probability, the population the claim applies to, or other specifics?

Next read the research paper. I recommend approaching it in this order (note that this is NOT the order the article is written in):

  1. Abstract – This is a summary of the article, meant to give the reader a quick understanding of the background, methods, and findings of the article.
  2. Introduction (aka Background) – This gives you a sense of related research that has been done prior to this article. The authors should be doing two things: first, summarizing this scientific field’s general knowledge as it pertains to the research they did; and second, providing a rationale for why this research is important.
  3. Discussion (and Conclusion) – This is a summary of the findings of the article, and how those findings relate to the broader context of this scientific field. This is where the authors should be talking about how and why their findings are important.
  4. Methods – This gives the specifics about how the study was done. At the very least, you should be able to find out how many subjects were used in the research, and what specifically was done to each subject. This section (and the Results) can be very dense – work your way through slowly to understand as much as you can.
  5. Results – This gives the specific findings of the research (e.g. Group A gained an average of 2 kg more than Group B). Statistical results will be here as well. Statistics is beyond the scope of this course, but read through them to understand as much as you can.
  6. Revisit the Discussion and finally the Abstract – Review these sections again, now that you more fully understand the specifics of the research.

Writing:

This assignment does not have a set minimum or maximum page length or word count. Just fully address the questions I ask you below, and however long your paper ends up will be right – I anticipate it will likely total to 4 typed, double-spaced pages. Note that all you need to write is specifically what I ask for. You do not need to include introductory or concluding paragraphs – this paper does not need to follow any standard essay-writing conventions you may have learned in English classes. We won’t give you any extra points for writing more than we ask for, but we also won’t penalize you if you do write a few extra paragraphs (just don’t get carried away!).

Feel free to use the template I have provided to guide your writing.

Popular Media (ScienceDaily) Article

  • Provide a citation for the popular media article that includes the following: Article Title, Publication Date, Article Source, Direct Internet Link to the paper at ScienceDaily
  • 1 paragraph summary of the popular media article
  • About 2 paragraphs answering the following…

o Why would people be interested in reading this article?
o What advice is offered by the article, and why or why not would people be

inclined to follow the advice of the article? (The article may explicitly offer advice based upon the research, or you may have to infer this advice from the article’s content)

o Was the information presented as authoritative and reliable? What specific information (or lack thereof) makes you feel that this is the case?

o What degree of scientific rigor was presented in the article? Was information such as sample size, population, effect size, or statistical probability included?

Scientific Research Paper

  • Provide the citation for the research paper, using the conventions found here: http://libraries.wsu.edu/quickguides/sssa.
  • 1 paragraph summary of the research paper (yes, there’s likely to be overlap between this summary and that from the popular media article)
  • About 3-4 paragraphs answering the following…

o The scientist authors collected data that they used to support or refute their hypotheses and build their conclusions. Based on the data presented by the authors, do you agree with their interpretation of their data and their data’s importance? Why or why not?

o Do the conclusions reached by the popular media authors match those reached by the scientist authors? In what ways do they differ?

o How does the emphasis presented by the popular article compare to that in the research paper? Broad vs. narrow applicability, major vs. minimal effects, etc…

o What is your opinion about the scientific legitimacy of ScienceDaily, based on their treatment of this research paper?

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